Dwight Howard's defense is overrated, except for when it isn't

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One of the most buzzed-about things during the recent Sloan Conference at MIT was a paper presented by John Huizinga on the value of a blocked shot. 
It was an interesting paper because it quantified things that fans have known for years. A block softly deflected to a teammate is better than a shot swatted out of bounds, blocking a layup is more valuable than blocking a jump shot, and goaltending is bad. 
What makes the paper extremely interesting is that according to Huizinga’s findings, Dwight Howard made the least valuable blocks in the league, while Tim Duncan made the most valuable ones. Since Howard is generally regarded as the best shot-blocker in the NBA by a wide margin, this finding has stirred up some controversy. Most people know that Howard goes for some blocks even he can’t get and tends to spike the ball out of bounds rather than tap it to a teammate, but the least valuable blocks? 

ESPN’s Peter Keating explained Huizinga’s conclusions like this:
“If your block produces an offensive rebound — often the result of smashing the ball out of bounds — that’s neither the best nor worst result. The other team keeps the ball, with an expected value of about 1 for its possession. If you goal-tend on a block, that’s the worst; your opponent scores automatically, and occasional fouls push the expected value of the possession up to about 2.07.
Over the entire stretch of data that Huizinga and Weil examined, Tim Duncan didn’t goal-tend once, while 24 percent of Dwight Howard’s blocks resulted in free points for the other team.”

Again, none of this is shocking stuff. Goaltending is bad. Tim Duncan is an extremely cerebral player on both ends of the floor. Howard relies more on instincts and athleticism, and sometimes tries to do too much on defense. 

So Dwight Howard’s blocks are overrated. But is Howard’s shot-blocking overrated? Even though Howard goaltends too much and doesn’t deflect the ball to his teammates, opponents sure are terrified of Howard swatting their shot when they play against him. The Magic are the second-best team in the league at preventing points in the paint, and were third in that category last season. Additionally, Orlando is the best team in the league at defending the rim for the second straight season. So while Howard’s blocks themselves may not be valuable, Howard’s value as a defensive presence is clearly off the charts. 
The real question is whether Howard’s minor issues with goaltending and swatting the ball out of bounds actually help him do what he does better than anyone else, which is prevent opposing teams from getting easy baskets inside. For each one of Dwight’s goaltends, how many shots got changed because an opposing player was afraid that Dwight would make a block no other player would dare to go for? For each basket scored on a second possession thanks to Dwight swatting a block out of bounds, how many players decided to pull up for a jumper instead of try to drive because they didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of a highlight? 
Before Huizinga’s paper gets dismissed because of arguments like the above, it should be noted that Duncan’s more subtle approach to shot-blocking was certainly effective as well. In 2008, the year Huizinga cites in his data, the Spurs gave up slightly fewer points in the paint than the Magic did, and were a top-five team in terms of defending the rim. 
Personally, I would say that Howard’s positives easily outweigh his negatives as a shot-blocker, and that he’s easily the best defensive player in basketball. However, I would stop short of saying that Howard would be best served completely ignoring Huizinga’s study. Just like great offensive players always have new skills to learn and areas of their game to refine, great defensive players can still have areas they need to improve in. In this case, Howard is giving up some points he doesn’t need to be giving up when he goes for blocks. Fixing that problem while still giving the impression he can still swat any shot will be tough, but it’s certainly something Howard is capable of.  

Enes Kanter on claim nobody wants to play with Russell Westbrook: ‘Wrong!!!’

SAN ANTONIO,TX - MAY 10:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrates with Enes Kanter #11 after a win against the San Antonio Spurs in game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 10, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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Kevin Durant might have left the Thunder, in part, because he grew tired of playing with Russell Westbrook.

But does that mean nobody wants to play with Westbrook?

Presented with that claim, Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter refuted it strongly:

Of course, many players want to play with Russell Westbrook. He’s a great player and even better competitor. People want to be around someone so maniacal about winning and capable of delivering.

But there’s an obvious difference between Kanter and Durant. It’s much easier for a pick-and-roll big man than a superstar wing to play with Westbrook.

Westbrook tends to over-dribble, and he can be selfish. I’d understand Durant preferring a team with more ball movement like the Warriors.

Kanter doesn’t have the cachet to pick any team at any salary like Durant did. Of his options, Kanter is probably genuinely happy to play with Westbrook. And the Thunder should be happy to have Westbrook (as long as they do). His strengths far outweigh his flaws.

No scoring star seamlessly blend with each other. Even LeBron James and Dwyane Wadeclose friends and one an elite passer — struggled to mesh early in their Heat days. It’s just hard when there’s one ball.

So, it’s unfair to kill Westbrook for this drawback to his game. Maybe he’d click better with another star who’s more aggressive than Durant. And it’s not even as if Westbrook and Durant failed together. Oklahoma City won a lot of games with those two.

Plenty of players would sign up to replace Durant as Westbrook’s partner in crime.

Report: Amar’e Stoudemire wanted to play for Suns next season

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 19:  Amar'e Stoudemire #1 of the Phoenix Suns looks at the scoreboard late in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 19, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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Amar’e Stoudemire — despite spending more time and having more success with the Suns — signed with the Knicks to retire.

Why not Phoenix?

John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7:

Stoudemire was linked to the Suns last year, but a return never happened.

It didn’t make more sense now. Phoenix already has 15 players, the regular-season roster limit. John Jenkins and Alan Williams have unguaranteed deals, but why waive one for Stoudemire? The Suns are semi-rebuilding, and Tyson Chandler already serves as a veteran big.

There’s a reason Stoudemire retired rather then sign somewhere. Maybe nobody wanted him.

But it’s also only July, and teams are still filling out their rosters. If Stoudemire wants to keep playing, he might have opportunities later, especially after the trade deadline. He’s just 33. There’s now reason to believe his retirement won’t stick.

Thunder renounce Derek Fisher

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 25: Oklahoma City Thunder Derek Fisher #6 runs up the court against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 25, 2014 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Derek Fisher is already stumping for his second head-coaching job.

Fisher has done plenty since retiring as a player — getting hired by the Knicks, getting fired by the Knicks and in between being attacked by Matt Barnes and finding another controversy about player relations.

All the while, Fisher counted against the cap for the Thunder, his last NBA team.

Oklahoma City finally renounced him to sign Alex Abrines.

Albert Nahmad of Heat Hoops:

This is one of my favorite salary-cap quirks, explained in further detail here.

These are becoming fewer and further between, because teams are using cap room more frequently as the salary cap skyrockets. Gone are the days of a team operating above the cap for a dozen straight years.

There’s also even less utility in old cap holds now that a player must have played the prior season for a team to be used in a sign-and-trade. (Not that these holds were useful except the rarest of occasions prior, anyway.)

Fisher’s quick transition from playing to coaching helped make this an exception, allowing this weird (and trivial) transaction.

Report: Las Vegas also in contention for 2017 NBA All-Star game

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 25:  Bushwacker, a world champion bucking bull, appears at the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign prior to the final ride of his legendary career on October 25, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for Professional Bull Riders)
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Where will the NBA hold the 2017 All-Star game?

Charlotte? No.

New Orleans? Probably.

New York/Brooklyn or Chicago? Maybe.

One more maybe: Las Vegas.

Scott Kusher of The Advocate:

The NBA held All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas in 2007. By all accounts, it was wild.

I’d be surprised if the league returned the event to Las Vegas, but at this point, I’d really be surprised by any option besides New Orleans.